Ethics Are for Everyone
This month, our columnists address the role of ethics in the IT industry.
- By Steve Crandall
- February 01, 2003
One of the classes I teach is the basic survey course, “Introduction
to Information Technology.” One week we look at hardware, one week it’s
databases, the following week it’s programming—all the different aspects
one might be performing in an IT career. The course isn’t difficult, but
one of the things I like about the textbook is that each chapter has a
sidebar feature called, “Ethical and Societal Issues,” which presents
a real-life scenario or description of a technology and then lists questions.
This is an integral part of my course. I want my students to know that
technology always has causes in and/or effects on society, so they have
to think about issues like employee monitoring and identity theft.
All of us need to think about these issues, and a large component is
something called “rationalization.” As
Greg says, we sometimes rationalize making a copy of software by saying,
“Well, they don’t really need the money.” Let’s take that line of thought
into two directions. First, I’m pretty sure that Wal-Mart can get along
fine without my money. So do I rationalize that it’s OK for me to shoplift
from Wal-Mart? On the other side: Who am I really hurting if I make an
extra copy of Windows XP? Bill Gates? No, I don’t think he’ll feel the
bite. The stockholders of Microsoft? Ultimately, yes, and because a large
percentage of Microsoft stock is held by institutions (mutual funds),
this includes your 401K, as well. More directly hurt are those non-Microsoft
employees in the supply chain, including the companies that press the
Instances of ethics lapses abound, and not just the big headline-makers
like Enron, Adelphia and WorldCom. Recently, here in Cleveland, we had
the trial of a rogue stockbroker
who bilked his clients out of around $7 million. Many of those clients
lost all of their retirement savings.
But ethics involves more than avoiding fraud and theft. How we treat
our fellow employees matters, too. Usually ethical problems occur when
someone views a situation as a zero-sum game: that is, in order for someone
to “win,” someone has to “lose.” Our
column last month talked, in part, about a situation in which a manager
had supposedly taken complete credit for a subordinate’s work. Was that
illegal? Probably not. Unethical? Absolutely. Just as are malicious gossip
One part of Greg’s comments surprised me, where he talks about the ethical
code of his computing society being one of the first times he specifically
thought about ethics in IT. At least the last three companies that I worked
for had a “Code of Ethical Behavior” that was handed to all new employees.
At each company, I had to tear out a page from the booklet, sign it and
return it to HR, indicating that I had read and would abide by the code.
I’m sure many of you have had the same experience. How many of us take
that seriously? No, we don’t forge time sheets or fabricate invoices to
customers, but how many of us pad our mileage on our expense reports?
Make personal long distance calls at the office? “Borrow” the latest software?
Nickel-and-dime things, to be sure—but even nickels and dimes add up.
One of the first questions about ethics in the textbook I talked about
earlier is “Recall a situation in which you had to deal with a conflict
in values. What process did you use to resolve this issue?” Think about
it. How would you answer that?
Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology
at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.